But in time, the paintings ended. They had reached such a level of complexity and strangeness that there appeared to be nothing further Drew could add. The paintings lay in his dorm room, a forest of unmitigated oddness, consigned to the available spaces as Drew made his way around them to the front door. Now and then, Drew would still disappear. One time, I was with him in a corner store, he looking for chips in the aisle over while I searched for cough drops. And then Drew went, just like that. I’d walked to the cashier and pleaded to see the security tape for the store, and owing to there having been no one else in the place, she’d agreed. There, on tape, was Drew Ramos searching for chips, vacillating between salt and vinegar, and sour cream and onion. His hands had touched the bags, going back and forth. And then he had left. He had just left, and behind him a vacuum in the aisle, a blank spot of dirty floor with his boot prints on it.
Winter grew deeper and going home to Drew’s house became more difficult. But we never missed a weekend. I kept thinking about March, what it would be like, and that maybe under the heavy snows, there really were worlds such as Drew had painted, just ones that I had never taken the time to see before. Or perhaps the world had changed since November, some kind of upheaval in physics that had resulted in a profound change in reality that only Drew had glimpsed – perhaps by tunneling down to the bottom of the snow drifts in those moments when he left.
Drew’s mother eventually went into a hospital, and we would visit her there, Drew’s pockets stuffed with secrets he would only share with her, me bringing a reasonable facsimile of home-baked cookies. I told myself that we were all waiting for spring; I told Mrs. Ramos that she should look forward to that, too. And she would just smile. And Drew would laugh that incredible vacuum cleaner, smashed glass laugh, until the windows were fogged and no one could hear the public radio.
It was deep in February that I’d found Drew in my room, appearing out of nothing. He was sitting between Giselle’s bed and mine, the long red curls illuminated by a reading lamp I’d left on.
“Drew, how did you get here?” I had the nerve to ask him.
“Been here a while. It’s creepy watching someone sleep.”
“Being watched while sleeping is just fine, though,” I’d said, inviting him under the covers as though that had been a perfectly acceptable thing to do. He’d declined, and in her sleep, Giselle had turned and stirred, and I’d thought Drew would simply vanish in response. To his credit, he’d stayed, though declined the offer to share a comforter.
“Dad’s dead,” he’d said, serious boy that he was. “Heading home with groceries. Car slipped off the road, into the other lane. A school bus hit him head on. The kids are fine, though. The kids are fine.”
“Drew,” I’d said, taking his hand. “Please come under the covers.”
“Bus’ engine block was completely ruined. Torn right off. Bus driver has stitches. Dad’s car was flattened. But the groceries were fine. Not an egg broken. Not a banana smushed.” He’d brought my hand to his cheek. “Mom’s sister is coming over to take care of her.”
“Do you want me to drive you home? We’ll go right now.”
And he’d looked at me, in that strange, so-present way. “I’ve already been,” he’d whispered, and I’d wondered for that moment not about where Drew went, but – like him – about the one place he had not been but could have been, the one spot where he’d been needed and not appeared, not been present at all.
Drew had sat there the rest of the night, my hand against his cheek. And when Giselle had finally rolled over and opened her eyes, that was when Drew had gone and I’d been left alone.
Spring and the snow melting, uncovering the miracles that I had managed to miss, yielded instead muck and mud and the wonderful chill of the melt. I’d spent a lot of time in Drew’s room, crowded in with paintings that had finally dried. Drew had sat at his desk, reading out of a book, dressed in a robe that made him look about eight years old, serious boy that he was.
We’d gone to classes. We’d held hands as we’d walked the grounds of St-Ives with our scarves on, our mitts tucked into our pockets. Three or four times a week, we drove to see Mrs. Ramos in the hospital. And that was it. That had become the completeness of our existence, not physics or paintings or anything else. Every time the sun had come out, I’d taken Drew to an alcove that could receive it, as though this was my version of another world. And I think he’d appreciated that, those narrow familiar sunbeams on his pale skin, the warmth on his hands.
“You are so pretty, dear,” Mrs. Ramos had kept saying to me, every time I’d visited, as though she’d been afraid that I would inevitably disappear. I’d wanted to tell her that it was not me she should have been worried about, but she’d just kept talking: “My son, when he was born, nearly killed me but I withstood that. He grew up solitary, do you know what I mean? I know that you do. It killed me to see him aloof, unloved except by me and my husband. I don’t dream of other things. I don’t dream of them.”
“Mrs. Ramos, please,” I’d said. “I’m coming back. I’m going to keep coming back. I’m going to be with him. I’m going to be.”
And I think she’d believed me, in the way that she’d squeezed my hand and glinted with the treasure of secrets, of faraway places that she had glimpsed through a son that had nearly killed her upon his birth. Every time, every conversation with her, had been like that, right up to the end. In her stillness, she’d been prettier somehow. And Drew sat at the edge of the bed, muttering to her deaf ears as I’d huddled on the other side, crying my eyes out. I still don’t know or understand how Drew Ramos had climbed into my life so deeply that I’d wished to never leave that hospital if that’s what he’d wanted from me; that I’d have driven him around the world if that’s what he’d required in that moment.
Outside the hospital, he’d looked up and down the street, past the screaming ambulances and the sleeping figures on the sidewalks. He’d looked at me, super-present, and asked me to go for a cappuccino: it had been the last thing I’d expected of him. But in the coffee shop, he’d dunked his front-most curls in the foam, and looked up as though to amuse me, as though that were somehow important. And I’d been crying. And I’d been present, but not in the way that I would have wanted to be for him, and that was the very thing that perplexed me the most about Drew Ramos, how he could be there in an ultra-dense form, absorbing through the gravity of his serious look all the grief that I could give him instead of the other way around.
I’ll never understand where Drew Ramos went. I can only guess. There are paintings like photographs that record his journeys. There are remembrances given to a dead mother that would prove what had happened.
Spring was lost in a rapid thaw, nudged aside that year by a summer that had been too impatient to wait another month or two. St-Ives brimmed with students spilling into the laneways and the walking paths around the flagpole out front. It was May when I’d felt that I’d reversed the direction of grief with Drew, to the point where I could, as appropriate, be useful to him, and help him with his memories and what he wanted to do next. He’d smile from behind a book, now and then, as though I was the prettiest thing in all the world. He’d put an arm around me, now and then, in some corridor, and pretend for a moment that he’d been dancing – as though he knew how. It was May when I’d felt a glowing again of something, anything, in the hot air and the cool sunbeams. And it had been May when I’d gone to find Drew, and he’d not been there. Drew had left. He had simply left.
I’d come back later in the day, but no Drew. I’d come back that night, lurking outside his door, but no Drew. The morning had been uncomfortable, me in the same clothes, knocking on his door, letting myself in. There were paintings everywhere, but no Drew. That had been the longest, hardest day that I could remember, trying to sit in class and concentrate on some lesson or another, fully expecting that Drew would appear – but not in the way that anyone else would. No, I expected Drew to suddenly populate the chair next to me, the one that I’d left for him. Or to jump out of a shadow, red curls unfurled, and pretend to dance. Or to be in my room that night, leaning against the wall with my hand next to his cheek.
Eventually, the school had noticed he was gone, but there had been nothing to do. There was no sign of where Drew had gone, no way to find him and no family to reach out to. There was no one to report his absence to, not anymore. And people had asked me: where has Drew gone? Don’t you know, when was the last time you saw him, do you think he did something bad to himself? And I’d answered, but everything a lie, and in the quiet alcoves on the upper floors of St-Ives, I’d wondered about what it meant to be living in this way, without Drew in my life. Where do you go, Drew? I asked the shadows, as though they would reform into his shape and answer me.
I’d sit with his paintings. There’d been one that always took me, no matter what: it was of a purple-grassed plain, out of which grew a tall spire of black stone. Caves had been worn in the obelisk, through the weathering action of blue mists that hovered around the peak. There’d been creatures perched at some of the cave mouths, great creatures with broad wings that leapt over the purple plains. And there they’d gone. There they’d went. Flying as I wished that I could, in a place that I wished I could go to: because that had been the net effect of Drew Ramos on me, the desire for places that weren’t and could never be, but that were present in me now. That was the first painting I’d taken, but I’d removed the rest as well. No one else had come to claim them, and now they sit downstairs in my house, where I go to see them all the time.
In time, I said goodbye to St-Ives and moved on. There had been no choice but to move on. People had told me about the many things that I could do, the places I could go. I hadn’t understood what they’d meant, and still don’t. I think about that boy all the time. I wonder about him, how he’d entered my life and departed it in basically the same way. I think about where he is, how far he’d been willing to go because of the things that had happened, and why he hadn’t taken me with him – because I would have gone. I would have gone with him. But in the end, it had not been my choice, and I’m just glad for the paintings he left behind, because that is something – something of what it means to be far away, to not be present, and to mean it.
The last day at St-Ives, I’d gone in and cleaned out the rest of Drew’s things, because no one else was going to. And that’s when I’d knocked that Harry Potter book off the shelf, and it had opened up on its way to the ground – and out of it had floated a bookmark. It had been a feather, made of the lightest gold and flecked with ruby dust. Its stem still had bits of the soil in which it had been grown – mineralized debris made of silica and blue sand. I’d tucked it into my pocket, that inconsequential amount of proof of the things I’d always suspected – as though I’d needed that at all, as though Drew Ramos and the boy he’d been hadn’t already been enough. I’d closed the door for the last time that day, to start my own journey, and I’d resisted opening it again to make sure the room was empty, that it was in fact deserted. And I’d walked outside into the summer sunshine, and suddenly it felt fine to me that Drew went to other worlds, that that’s where he’d gone forever, for Drew had loved physics – but he’d always hoped someday to paint.